A Modern Mephistopheles

by Louisa May Alcott

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Chapter IX

Helwyze was right, and Canaris found that his sudden marriage did stimulate public interest wonderfully. There had always been something mysterious about this brilliant young man and his relations with his patron; who was as silent as the Sphinx regarding his past, and tantalizingly enigmatical about his plans and purposes for the future. The wildest speculations were indulged in: many believed them to be father and son; others searched vainly for the true motive of this charitable caprice; and every one waited with curiosity to see the end of it. All of which much amused Helwyze, who cared nothing for the world’s opinion, and found his sense of humor tickled by the ludicrous idea of himself in the new rôle of benefactor.

The romance seemed quite complete when it was known that the young poet had brought home a wife whose talent, youth, and isolation 118seemed to render her peculiarly fitted for his mate.

Though love was lacking, vanity was strong in Canaris, and this was gratified by the commendation bestowed on the new ornament he wore; for as such simple Gladys was considered, and shone with reflected lustre, her finer gifts and graces quite eclipsed by his more conspicuous and self-asserting ones.

With unquestioning docility she gave herself into his hands, following where he led her, obeying his lightest wish, and loving him with a devotion which kept alive regretful tenderness when it should have cherished a loyal love. He gladly took her into all the gayety which for a time surrounded them, and she enjoyed it with a girl’s fresh delight. He showed her wise and witty people whom she admired or loved; and she looked and listened with an enthusiast’s wonder. He gave her all he had to give, novelty and pleasure; though the one had lost its gloss for him, and too much of the other he was forced to accept from Helwyze’s hands. But through all the experiences that now rapidly befell her, Gladys was still herself; innocently happy, stanchly true, characteristically independent, a mountain stream, keeping its waters pure and 119bright, though mingled with the swift and turbid river which was hurrying it toward the sea.

Curiosity being satisfied, society soon found some fresher novelty to absorb it. Women still admired Canaris, but marriage lessened his attractions for them; men still thought him full of promise, but were fast forgetting the first successful effort which had won their applause; and the young lion found that he must roar loud and often, if he would not be neglected. Shutting himself into his cell, he worked with hopeful energy for several months, often coming out weary, but excited, with the joyful labor of creation. At such times there was no prose anywhere; for heaven and earth were glorified by the light of that inner world, where imagination reigns, and all things are divine. Then he would be in the gayest spirits, and carry Gladys off to some hour of pleasant relaxation at theatre, opera, or ball, where flattery refreshed or emulation inspired him; and next day would return to his task with redoubled vigor.

At other times his fickle mistress deserted him; thought would not soar, language would not sing, poetry fled, and life was unutterably “flat, stale, and unprofitable.” Then it was Gladys, who took possession of him; lured him 120out for a brisk walk, or a long drive into a wholesomer world than that into which he took her; sung weary brain to sleep with the sweetest lullabies of brother bards; or made him merry by the display of a pretty wit, which none but he knew she could exert. With wifely patience and womanly tact she managed her wayward but beloved lord, till despondency yielded to her skill, and the buoyant spirit of hope took him by the hand, and led him to his work again.

In the intervals between these fits of intellectual intoxication and succeeding depression, Gladys devoted herself to Helwyze with a faithfulness which surprised him and satisfied her; for, as she said, her “bread tasted bitter if she did not earn it.” He had expected to be amused, perhaps interested, but not so charmed, by this girl, who possessed only a single talent, a modest share of beauty, and a mind as untrained as a beautiful but neglected garden. This last was the real attraction; for, finding her hungry for knowledge, he did not hesitate to test her taste and try her mental mettle, by allowing her free range of a large and varied library. Though not a scholar, in the learned sense of the word, he had the eager, sceptical nature which interrogates 121all things, yet believes only in itself. This had kept him roaming solitarily up and down the earth for years, observing men and manners; now it drove him to books; and, as suffering and seclusion wrought upon body and brain, his choice of mute companions changed from the higher, healthier class to those who, like himself, leaned towards the darker, sadder side of human nature. Lawless here, as elsewhere, he let his mind wander at will, as once he had let his heart, learning too late that both are sacred gifts, and cannot safely be tampered with.

All was so fresh and wonderful to Gladys, that her society grew very attractive to him; and pleasant as it was to have her wait upon him with quiet zeal, or watch her busied in her own corner, studying, or sewing with the little basket beside her which gave such a homelike air, it was still pleasanter to have her sit and read to him, while he watched this face, so intelligent, yet so soft; studied this mind, at once sensitive and sagacious, this nature, both serious and ardent. It gave a curious charm to his old favorites when she read them; and many hours he listened contentedly to the voice whose youth made Montaigne’s worldly wisdom seem the shrewder; whose music gave a certain sweetness to Voltaire’s bitter wit or Carlyle’s rough wisdom; whose pitying wonder added pathos to the melancholy brilliancy of Heine and De Quincy. Equally fascinating to him, and far more dangerous to her, were George Sand’s passionate romances, Goethe’s dramatic novels, Hugo and Sue’s lurid word-pictures of suffering and sin; the haunted world of Shakespeare and Dante, the poetry of Byron, Browning, and Poe.

Rich food and strong wine for a girl of eighteen; and Gladys soon felt the effects of such a diet, though it was hard to resist when duty seconded inclination, and ignorance hid the peril. She often paused to question with eager lips, to wipe wet eyes, to protest with indignant warmth, or to shiver with the pleasurable pain of a child who longs, yet dreads, to hear an exciting story to the end. Helwyze answered willingly, if not always wisely; enjoyed the rapid unfolding of the woman, and would not deny himself any indulgence of this new whim, though conscious that the snow-drop, transplanted suddenly from the free fresh spring-time, could not live in this close air without suffering.

This was the double life Gladys now began to lead. Heart and mind were divided between 123the two, who soon absorbed every feeling, every thought. To the younger man she was a teacher, to the elder a pupil; in the one world she ruled, in the other served; unconsciously Canaris stirred emotion to its depths, consciously Helwyze stimulated intellect to its heights; while the soul of the woman, receiving no food from either, seemed to sit apart in the wilderness of its new experience, tempted by evil as well as sustained by good spirits, who guard their own.

One evening this divided mastery was especially felt by Helwyze, who watched the young man’s influence over his wife with a mixture of interest and something like jealousy, as it was evidently fast becoming stronger than his own. Sitting in his usual place, he saw Gladys flit about the room, brushing up the hearth, brightening the lamps, and putting by the finished books, as if the day’s duties were all done, the evening’s rest and pleasure honestly earned, eagerly waited for. He well knew that this pleasure consisted in carrying Canaris away to her own domain; or, if that were impossible, she would sit silently looking at him while he read or talked in his fitful fashion on any subject his master chose to introduce.

The desire to make her forget the husband whose neglect would have sorely grieved her if his genius had not been his excuse in her eyes for many faults, possessed Helwyze that night; and he amused himself by the effort, becoming more intent with each failure.

As the accustomed hour drew near, Gladys took her place on the footstool before the chair set ready for Felix, and fell a musing, with her eyes on the newly replenished fire. Above, the unignited fuel lay black and rough, with here and there a deep rift opening to the red core beneath; while to and fro danced many colored flames, as if bent on some eager quest. Many flashed up the chimney, and were gone; others died solitarily in dark corners, where no heat fed them; and some vanished down the chasms, to the fiery world below. One golden spire, tremulous and translucent, burned with a brilliance which attracted the eye; and, when a wandering violet flame joined it, Gladys followed their motions with interest, seeing in them images of Felix and herself, for childish fancy and womanly insight met and mingled in all she thought and felt.

Forgetting that she was not alone, she leaned forward, to watch what became of them, as the 125wedded flames flickered here and there, now violet, now yellow. But the brighter always seemed the stronger, and the sad-colored one to grow more and more golden, as if yielding to its sunshiny mate.

“I hope they will fly up together, out into the wide, starry sky, which is their eternity, perhaps,” she thought, smiling at her own eagerness.

But no; the golden flame flew up, and left the other to take on many shapes and colors, as it wandered here and there, till, just as it glowed with a splendid crimson, Gladys was forced to hide her dazzled eyes and look no more. Turning her flushed face away, she found Helwyze watching her as intently as she had watched the fire, and, reminded of his presence, she glanced toward the empty chair with an impatient sigh for Felix.

“You are tired,” he said, answering the sigh. “Mrs. Bland told me what a notable housewife you are, and how you helped her set the upper regions to rights to-day. I fear you did too much.”

“Oh, no, I enjoyed it heartily. I asked for something to do, and she allowed me to examine and refold the treasures you keep in the great carved wardrobe, lest moths or damp or dust had hurt the rich stuffs, curious coins, and lovely 126ornaments stored there. I never saw so many pretty things before,” she answered, betraying, by her sudden animation, the love of “pretty things,” which is one of the strongest of feminine foibles.

He smiled, well pleased.

“Olivia calls that quaint press from Brittany my bazaar, for there I have collected the spoils of my early wanderings; and when I want a cadeau for a fair friend, I find it without trouble. I saw in what exquisite order you left my shelves, and, as you were not with me to choose, I brought away several trifles, more curious than costly, hoping to find a thank-offering among them.”

As he spoke, he opened one of the deep drawers in the writing-table, as if to produce some gift. But Gladys said, hastily,—

“You are very kind, sir; but these fine things are altogether too grand for me. The pleasure of looking at and touching them is reward enough; unless you will tell me about them: it must be interesting to know what places they came from.”

Feeling in the mood for it, Helwyze described to her an Eastern bazaar, so graphically that she soon forgot Felix, and sat looking up as if she actually saw and enjoyed the splendors he spoke of. 127Lustrous silks sultanas were to wear; misty muslins, into whose embroidery some dark-skinned woman’s life was wrought; cashmeres, many-hued as rainbows; odorous woods and spices, that filled the air with fragrance never blown from Western hills; amber, like drops of frozen sunshine; fruits, which brought visions of vineyards, olive groves, and lovely palms dropping their honeyed clusters by desert wells; skins mooned and barred with black upon the tawny velvet, that had lain in jungles, or glided with deathful stealthiness along the track of human feet; ivory tusks that had felled Asiatic trees, gored fierce enemies, or meekly lifted princes to their seats.

These, and many more, he painted rapidly; and, as he ended, shook out of its folds a gauzy fabric, starred with silver, which he threw over her head, pointing to the mirror set in the door of the armoire behind her.

“See if that is not too pretty to refuse. Felix would surely be inspired if you appeared before him shimmering like Suleika, when Hatem says to her,—

“‘Here, take this, with the pure and silver streaking,
And wind it, Darling, round and round for me;
What is your Highness? Style scarce worth the speaking,
When thou dost look, I am as great as He.’”

Gladys did look, and saw how beautiful it made her; but, though she did not understand the words he quoted, the names suggested a sultan and his slave, and she did not like either the idea or the expression with which Helwyze regarded her. Throwing off the gauzy veil, she refolded and put it by, saying, in that decided little way of hers, which was prettier than petulance,—

“My Hatem does not need that sort of inspiration, and had rather see his Suleika in a plain gown of his choosing, than dressed in all the splendors of the East by any other hand.”

“Come, then, we must find some better souvenir of your visit, for I never let any one go away empty-handed;” with that he dipped again into the drawer, and held up a pretty bracelet, explaining, as he offered it with unruffled composure, though she eyed it askance, attracted, yet reluctant, a charming picture of doubt and desire,—

“Here are the Nine Muses, cut in many-tinted lava. See how well the workman suited the color to the attribute of each Muse. Urania is blue; Erato, this soft pink; Terpsichore, violet; Euterpe and Thalia, black and white; and the others, these fine shades of yellow, dun, and drab. That pleases you, I know; so let me put it on.”

It did please her; and she stretched out her hand to accept it, gratified, yet conscious all the while of the antagonistic spirit which often seized her when with Helwyze. He put on the bracelet with a satisfied air; but the clasp was imperfect, and, at the first turn of the round wrist, the Nine Muses fell to the ground.

“It is too heavy. I am not made to wear handcuffs of any sort, you see: they will not stay on, so it is of no use to try;” and Gladys picked up the trinket with an odd sense of relief; though poor Erato was cracked, and Thalia, like Fielding’s fair Amelia, had a broken nose. She rose to lay it on the table, and, as she turned away, her eye went to the clock, as if reproaching herself for that brief forgetfulness of her husband. Half amused, half annoyed, and bent on having his own way, even in so small a thing as this, Helwyze drew up a chair, and, setting a Japanese tray upon the table, said, invitingly,—

“Come and see if these are more to your taste, since fine raiment and foolish ornaments fail to tempt you.”

“Oh, how curious and beautiful!” cried Gladys, looking down upon a collection of Hindoo gods and goddesses, in ebony or ivory: some hideous, some lovely, all carved with wonderful delicacy, 130and each with its appropriate symbol,—Vishnu, and his serpent; Brahma, in the sacred lotus; Siva, with seven faces; Kreeshna, the destroyer, with many mouths; Varoon, god of the ocean; and Kama, the Indian Cupid, bearing his bow of sugar-cane strung with bees, to typify love’s sting as well as sweetness. This last Gladys examined longest, and kept in her hand as if it charmed her; for the minute face of the youth was beautiful, the slender figure full of grace, and the ivory spotless.

“You choose him for your idol? and well you may, for he looks like Felix. Mine, if I have one, is Siva, goddess of Fate, ugly, but powerful.”

“I will have no idol,—not even Felix, though I sometimes fear I may make one of him before I know it;” and Gladys put back the little figure with a guilty look, as she confessed the great temptation that beset her.

“You are wise: idols are apt to have feet of clay, and tumble down in spite of our blind adoration. Better be a Buddhist, and have no god but our own awakened thought; ‘the highest wisdom,’ as it is called,” said Helwyze, who had lately been busy with the Sâkya Muni, and regarded all religions with calm impartiality.

“These are false gods, and we are done with 131them, since we know the true one,” began Gladys, understanding him; for she had read aloud the life of Gautama Buddha, and enjoyed it as a legend; while he found its mystic symbolism attractive, and nothing repellent in its idolatry.

“But do we? How can you prove it?”

“It needs no proving; the knowledge of it was born in me, grows with my growth, and is the life of my life,” cried Gladys, out of the fulness of that natural religion which requires no revelation except such as experience brings to strengthen and purify it.

“All are not so easily satisfied as you,” he said, in the sceptical tone which always tried both her patience and her courage; for, woman-like, she could feel the truth of things, but could not reason about them. He saw her face kindle, and added, rapidly, having a mind to try how firmly planted the faith of the pretty Puritan was: “Most of us agree that Allah exists in some form or other, but we fall out about who is the true Prophet. You choose Jesus of Nazareth for yours; I rather incline to this Indian Saint. They are not unlike: this Prince left all to devote his life to the redemption of mankind, suffered persecutions and temptations, had his disciples, and sent out the first apostles of whom 132we hear; was a teacher, with his parables, miracles, and belief in transmigration or immortality. His doctrine is almost the same as the other; and the six virtues which secure Nirvâna, or Heaven, are charity, purity, patience, courage, contemplation, and wisdom. Come, why not take him for a model?”

Gladys listened with a mixture of perplexity and pain in her face, and her hand went involuntarily to the little cross which she always wore; but, though her eye was troubled, her voice was steady, as she answered, earnestly,—

“Because I have a nobler one. My Prince left a greater throne than yours to serve mankind; suffered and resisted more terrible persecution and temptation; sent out wiser apostles, taught clearer truth, and preached an immortality for all. Yours died peacefully in the arms of his friends, mine on a cross; and, though he came later, he has saved more souls than Buddha. Sir, I know little about those older religions; I am not wise enough even to argue about my own: I can only believe in it, love it, and hold fast to it, since it is all I need.”

“How can you tell till you try others? This, now, is a fine one, if we are not too bigoted to look into it fairly. Wise men, who have done 133so, say that no faith—not even the Christian—has exercised so powerful an influence on the diminution of crime as the old, simple doctrine of Sâkya Muni; and this is the only great historic religion that has not taken the sword to put down its enemies. Can you say as much for yours?”

“No; but it is worth fighting for, and I would fight, as the Maid of Orleans did for France, for this is my country. Can you say of your faith that it sustained you in sorrow, made you happy in loneliness, saved you from temptation, taught, guided, blessed you day by day with unfailing patience, wisdom, and love? I think you cannot; then why try to take mine away till you can give me a better?”

Seldom was Gladys so moved as now, for she felt as if he was about to meddle with her holy of holies; and, without stopping to reason, she resisted the attempt, sure that he would harm, not help, her, since neither his words nor example had done Felix any good.

Helwyze admired her all the more for her resistance, and thought her unusually lovely, as she stood there flushed and fervent with her plea for the faith that was so dear to her.

“Why, indeed! You would make an excellent 134martyr, and enjoy it. Pity that you have no chance of it, and so of being canonized as a saint afterward. That is decidedly your line. Then, you won’t have any of my gods? not even this one?” he asked, holding up the handsome Kama, with a smile.

“No, not even that. I will have only one God, and you may keep your idols for those who believe in them. My faith may not be the oldest, but it is the best, if one may judge of the two religions by the happiness and peace they give,” answered Gladys, taking refuge in a very womanly, yet most convincing, argument, she thought, as she pointed to the mirror, which reflected both figures in its clear depths.

Helwyze looked, and though without an atom of vanity, the sight could not but be trying, the contrast was so great between her glad, young face, and his, so melancholy and prematurely old.

“Satma, Tama—Truth and Darkness,” he muttered to himself; adding aloud, with a vengeful sort of satisfaction in shocking her pious nature,—

“But I have no religion; so that defiant little speech is quite thrown away, my friend.”

It did shock her; for, though she had suspected 135the fact, there was something dreadful in hearing him confess it, in a tone which proved his sincerity.

“Mr. Helwyze, do you really mean that you believe in nothing invisible and divine? no life beyond this? no God, no Christ to bless and save?” she asked, hardly knowing how to put the question, as she drew back dismayed, but still incredulous.


He was both surprised, and rather annoyed, to find that it cost him an effort to give even that short answer, with those innocent eyes looking so anxiously up at him, full of a sad wonder, then dim with sudden dew, as she said eagerly, forgetting every thing but a great compassion,—

“O sir, it is impossible! You think so now; but when you love and trust some human creature more than yourself, then you will find that you do believe in Him who gives such happiness, and be glad to own it.”

“Perhaps. Meantime you will not make me happy by letting me give you any thing; why is it, Gladys?”

The black brows were knit, and he looked impatient with himself or her. She saw it, and exclaimed with the sweetest penitence,—

136“Give me your pardon for speaking so frankly. I mean no disrespect; but I cannot help it when you say such things, though I know that gratitude should keep me silent.”

“I like it. Do not take yourself to task for that, or trouble about me. There are many roads, and sooner or later we shall all reach heaven, I suppose,—if there is one,” he added, with a shrug, which spoiled the smile that went before.

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